It was ultimately Jazira’s day, with former Ajax coach Marcel Keizer beginning his reign with a bang as Al Jazira beat Shabab Al Ahli Dubai 5-4
Only a fool would draw conclusions as to how the season will end after the opening day – but astute observers of the Arabian Gulf League’s maiden round of fixtures could come to the conclusion that Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club and Al Jazira might return to prominence in 2018/19.
Both clubs endured frustrating 2017/18 campaigns. Jazira, champions the previous season, tanked as they finished in the bottom half of the table and a mammoth 25 points adrift of Al Ain, who took their AGL crown.
Shabab Al Ahli meanwhile, who have 10 UAE titles between them – in their old guises as Al Ahli and Al Shabab – fared little better following the shock merger between them and lesser known Dubai Club last summer. They finished fifth but were clearly lacking the class of the top four.
But if the opening day is any indicator, it seems both clubs may well have emerged through choppy waters.
It was ultimately Jazira’s day, with former Ajax coach Marcel Keizer beginning his reign with a bang as his side edged a nine-goal thriller 5-4.
There may have not have been much to admire about either side’s defending, but the entertainment on offer from both sides in stifling UAE heat was sizzling.
Ali Mabkhout plundered his first hat-trick of the season – no doubt it won’t be his last – but the real heroes for the Pride of Abu Dhabi were young UAE starlet Khalfan Mubarak and forgotten man Leonardo.
Mubarak, 23, won the AGL’s Best Young Player as his club claimed the championship two seasons ago, but he seemed to regress a year later as the capital city side struggled.
He was instrumental at Maktoum Bin Rashid al Maktoum Stadium though, setting up two goals and firing the winner himself. Leonardo, meanwhile, loaned to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr last season, also shone with assists for Mabkhout’s first two goals which dragged Jazira back into the game at 3-3.
For Shabab Al Ahli, this was certainly a win that got away from them – from leading 3-1 in the 40th minute, they allowed Jazira to level before the break.
They have certainly worked hard in the transfer market – with a trio of new coach Jose Luis Sierra’s summer signings combining beautifully to put Shabab Al Ahli 3-1 up.
Ecuador attacker Jaime Ayovi struck his first AGL goal from close range to give them the lead after just five minutes.
After Mubarak had teed up Ghana wideman Ernest Asante to level with a beautiful chipped effort on his debut, the hosts took charge.
Ayovi’s fine flick played in another new arrival, Argentine forward Emiliano Vecchio, who calmly sidefooted his side back in the lead, with compatriot Mauro Diaz, signed from FC Dallas, then lofting a brilliant pass over the top to Ayovi, who controlled sublimely before firing through Ali Khaseif’s legs.
As equally impressive as they were in attack, Shabab Al Ahli’s capitulation at the back was alarming.
Leonardo won the ball brilliantly on the edge of the box, dummied Salman Khamis before pulling the ball back across goal for Mabkhout to tuck home.
Three minutes later it was 3-3 when brilliant tenacity from Mubarak fed Leonardo and his excellent low delivery was again pounced on by Mabkhout who got ahead of Abdelaziz Haikal to prod home.
Kaizer’s men took the lead five minutes after the break, with Mabkhout completing a 10-minute treble when he collected Mubarak’s fine pass and rifled across Majed Nasser with his weaker left foot.
Referee Yaqoub Al Hammadi then consulted VAR to award Shabab Al Ali a penalty 13 minutes before the end, Salim Rashid adjudged to have felled Ayovi, and after it was given, Henrique Luvannor squared things up.
It was left to the man of the match to settle a manic game. Mubarak, hacked down on the edge of the box by Diaz, dusted himself down and swung a swerving free-kick over the wall and beyond the desperate dive of Nasser three minutes from time.
There’s a lot to do defensively, but in attack both teams appear to have the weapons to mount a title assault.